Dear Texas/Red Dirt Country: Innovate or Elevate

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Dear Texas/Red Dirt Country,

Hey, how it’s going? I’ve been reviewing and talking about quite a lot of your music over the course of Country Perspective’s existence. Normally I would be taking a look at the Texas radio charts today, but I’ve gotten quite frankly sick of it. This goes back to a problem I’ve had with you for a while, but now you’ve prompted me to finally spit it out. I’m not going to beat around the bush: You’re overrated. The top artists of the scene carry you to a reputation that is unearned: this bastion of music freedom from Music Row. Texas is where real country is made and appreciated. It’s so much better than what’s on mainstream country radio. Nope to all of this. Why? You ironically suffer from the same exact problems the mainstream charts suffer from: you all sound the same. You copy cat each other’s sound and most of you don’t stand out. You’re disposable. You coast on and hide behind the goodwill of steel guitars and fiddles that can easily sway some listeners when some of your lyrics can be just as cheap as the lines of a Blake Shelton single.

Now before you Red Dirt and Texas fans start pulling out the pitchforks and start listing names that are great of the scene, let’s acknowledge this. I don’t want this article to turn into some big pissing match of who’s good and who’s not, completely missing the point of it. As I said most, not all artists of the scene are disposable. There are multiple artists who are doing fantastic work and I’ve praised on this very site. For one of course you have the Turnpike Troubadours, the very best of the scene and a group that truly innovates and elevates their music on each album. Paul Cauthens truly excites me with the potential he showed with his debut album. You have veterans like Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers Band who have matured into great artists after dabbling with major labels. Cody Jinks is lighting the independent country fan base on fire and is poised to breakout big on his next album. And while he’s Americana, Chris King truly delivered a special album last year. Shane Smith and The Saints are a band I urge you to keep an eye on. There’s Lubbock acts like Flatland Cavalry and Dalton Domino truly bringing substance and meaning to their music. Cody Canada and the Departed, Sunny Sweeney, Jason Eady, Jamie Lin Wilson, Courtney Patton, Aaron Watson, Cody Johnson and I’m sure a few I’m missing are the great parts of the scene.

Then you get to the rest of the scene and it’s a parade of cheap imitations, the beating to death of the “I’m from Texas” theme, bad covers of 80s rock and wannabes who never will be. Most of the scene fails to stand out because they fail to innovate and elevate their music like the best I just mentioned. Quite frankly these artists I mentioned above did something else important: they went above the scene. They don’t become ingrained and dictated by the bullshit of the scene because scenes in general are terrible. It makes for an incestuous mindset and makes for complacency. You ever wonder why Chris Stapleton never got involved or close to these little scenes on his rise? Because they’re poisonous and sink careers as soon as they start to take off. It’s hilarious how so many in the scene sing about how much they love icons like Guy Clark and Merle Haggard in their songs, yet they wouldn’t give a damn about your music. As Turnpike Troubadours sings on “Long Drive Home,” you “all wanna be Hank Williams,” but don’t want to have to die.

So instead of maybe singing yet another song about the Alamo or George Strait’s cowboy hat or throwing rocks at more successful artists when it comes to innovation or doing bad covers of Beyoncé, maybe you should take a good hard look at your own music. Maybe spend a little less time singing about how Music Row is the devil and maybe sharpen up that songwriting. Maybe you shouldn’t coast on the brand of Red Dirt, which by the way positively means jack and shit. It’s based on region where the music comes from, but says nothing about the music itself. It’s as phony as when someone at mainstream country radio calls Sam Hunt an innovation of country music. I mean I’m sure some are quite happy to be a part of the Texas scene. That’s fine and dandy. But if you’re not one of the very best of the scene don’t ever call yourselves innovators and promote yourself as better than the music coming out of Nashville because you’re not (or act like you’re above criticism). You’re part of the morass of music people will forget about as soon as they blink, going back to my belief that 95% of all music is just forgettable tripe (4% is bad, 1% is good).

It’s really quite simple if you want my attention. Innovate or elevate if you want to earn your reputation.

 

Sincerely,

Someone Tired of Artists Referring to Themselves as Texas Country Songsters

 

P.S. Give women a damn chance, Texas country radio. For crying out loud you’re somehow worse than mainstream country radio. It’s a joke how little attention women get in the Texas scene, as it’s seemingly a giant sausage party. It’s not like there’s lack of quality women artists in and around the scene.

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20 thoughts on “Dear Texas/Red Dirt Country: Innovate or Elevate

  1. So you named 17 of the best current Texas Country artists on this article that are exempt from your critique. I would be hard pressed to name 17 from Nashville.

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    • Alan Jackson
      George Strait
      Kacey Musgraves
      Maddie & Tae
      Chris Stapleton
      Eric Church
      Brothers Osborne
      Miranda Lambert
      Tim McGraw
      Drake White
      Zac Brown Band
      Ashley Monroe
      Aubrie Sellers
      Brandy Clark
      Charlie Worsham
      Cam
      Runaway June

      There’s 17 artists on major labels in Nashville that are currently elevating or innovating. And others reading this might wonder why William Michael Morgan and Jon Pardi didn’t get listed: I levied this same criticism at them last year.

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      • This is a fantastic article and a great list. I was reading the list and came to the realization that Ashley Monroe is probably the most underrated artist in the mainstream country scene. Speaking of Ashley Monroe, Josh, what is your opinion of her fantastic 2013 album, Like a Rose? It’s my favorite country album ever. Two Weeks Late, Used, and The Morning After are absolute gems.

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        • i had to comment on this because that Ashley Monroe album is one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite, album, and “The Morning after” is consistently in the top three most played songs in my iTunes. I think “You Got Me,” “Used,” and “Weed Instead of Roses” are excellent too. Really the whole album is excellent, with a slight exception being the duet with Blake Shelton 🙂 If you haven’t already, you should check out her debut album “Satisfied.” An underrated record if ever there was one.

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  2. Thank you for writing this. It’s something that needs to be said! When I lived in Stillwater, OK, I dove head first into Red Dirt and Texas Country and found myself with many of these same complaints. It’s a crap shoot because you can name as many great current RD/TX artists (as you have), and match that with a bad, cheesy, unimaginative artist in the same sub genre.

    And the female problem in the genre is a problem that doesn’t get touched upon as much as it should, or as much as it did in the mainstream Circle with Keith Hill’s infamous line. That’s something that needs to be talked about more.

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  3. I 100% agree with your assessment of Texas country institutionally. It just seems blatantly style over substance as a whole, albeit with a superior track record of peppering their playlists with better-written songs.

    *

    You know what else has nose-dived in quality over the past several years alone? Canadian Country! -__-

    I swear as recently as 2014, Canadian country was setting something of a gold standard for what mainstream-sensible country music ought to sound like as late as the late bro-country era. But since then……………….it’s alarming how rapidly it has plunged in quality. It sounds as though they’re late to the bro-country party but nonetheless want to drink as much of the fruit punch as possible remaining. And quite a few of the recent hits plaguing their playlists are truly about as bad as the worst stateside: including from Cold Creek County, James Barker Band, River Town Saints and Tim Hicks.

    It’s a small miracle that High Valley are the closest thing to a successful crossover story north of the border as of late, instead of Dallas Smith (I’m still shocked he has failed to gain traction here……………………….most thankfully, of course). Sure, they’re bro-country in their choice themes, but I’d wage the way they sound and how they write and frame their songs is precisely what I had long wished bro-country sounded like instead at its heyday. I swear if High Valley represented the essence of bro-country instead of Luke Bryan, I would actually enjoy it.

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    • I agree Nadia. Nobody can beat canadian “country” artists in the low quality category. Not only the male artists crashed & burned quality-wise. The majority of female artists are middle-of-the-road-pop-country. Outstanding songs or albums? Outstanding artists? Not in canadian “country” music. Follow the Nashville leader & don’t try to stick out of the crowd.

      What about Texas? Yes, the Texas Regional Radio Report is a “giant sausage party”.
      Is the music as bad as the “country” music played on mainstream-country-radio? No way. Who is as bad as Sam Hunt or Chris Lane. Which duo or group are the red dirt equvivalent to FGL or LoCash?
      Not every artist must be innovative & elevate the music, sound or lyrics. I’m glad not all artists in Texas try to sound like the Turnpike Troubadours or Flatland Cavalry. The oh-so innovative groups.
      Preserve the traditional sound & yes…traditional lyrics. Full of cliches & as bad as Blake Shelton lyrics. But with steel & fiddle. Much more enjoyable.
      Since Nashville is only pushing pretty boys & very blonde girls. American sweethearts. Faceless, replaceable with the next best thing & the flavour of the month. Young, good looking & clueless about the history of country music. Produced by busbee & Ashley Gorley as the main songwriter.
      One artist like Chris Stapleton will not change the Nashville system. Where are the high-praised WMM or Mo Pitney? Where are the female artists with deeper music & lyrics (Brandy Clark)? But, but, but Jon Pardi? “Dirt On My Boots” & the majority of album tracks are middle-of-the-road radio stuff with a little bit of steel guitar.

      A Kick in the Red Dirt/Texas Country ass is ok. But the major problem is not Texas. It’s Nashville.

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    • I’ve heard of the infamous Dallas Smith and some of his songs. Thank goodness he hasn’t crossed over. I agree High Valley is likable. While I wouldn’t go so far to say their debut album was good, it certainly wasn’t bad. Their music at worst is forgettable and I agree if they were the essence of bro country I wouldn’t have hated it so much.

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  4. I’m far from being knowledgeable enough to give an informed opinion, but this has been my impression as well. I saw an interview once with Cody Jinks where he seemed to kinda dismiss the label of Texas country for himself and said that he never wanted to be limited to the Red Dirt scene.

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  5. If nothing else, I hope this article causes some positive internal debate among those more familiar with the Texas scene than I am. Not that it particularly matters, but one curious bit to me is that the “Red Dirt” term that has become largely synonymous with Texas country is a carryover from Oklahoma. From Wikipedia (and yeah, I know how accurate that might or not be) “The first usage of Red Dirt was by Steve Ripley band Moses when the group chose the label name Red Dirt Records for their 1972 self-published live album.” Although I’ve never met them, Ripley’s wife is my second cousin. I think it’s fair to say that he’s always been much more involved with the Tulsa and Oklahoma music scenes than Texas. Some of his work in the last couple years includes restoring some really old Bob Wills recordings for the Oklahoma Historical Society , and organizing a Bob Dylan tribute in Tulsa (as he was a member of Dylan’s touring band one year). Sorry to ramble so far off topic, but it’s just a bit of little-known history.

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    • Yeah Red Dirt did originate in Oklahoma and was essentially adopted by Texas and merged together with Texas Country. Someone like Thomas Mooney at New Slang Lubbock is more informed than I am on this, as he’s more familiar with the scene in and around Texas. He had a thought provoking piece on this very subject a few weeks back.

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      • Another bit that I’ll mention is that I have spent some time the last few years visiting San Marcos, TX, which is right in the heart of things. The late Kent Finlay of San Marcos supported female singers and songwriters. He was one of the main people who tried to provide opportunities to many of the very best that the Texas scene has to offer.

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  6. So, I agree and disagree. As someone pointed out above, you just named 17 artists excluded from this conversation. Then you did named 17 artists in the Nashville scene, and I respect that. I think the huge difference here is that the Texas 17 are consistently seeing radio success, which can only be said about some of the Nashville names. Jackson and strait have all but vanished from mainstream airwaves, Kacey Musgraves has been blacklisted, Ashley Monroe has never had a radio hit except on a Blake Shelton single, etc. Meanwhile, the Texas artists you mentioned are steadily scoring #1 hits at Texas radio. Yes, you are absolutely right, there are a lot of clichéd songs and themes coming out of Texas and Red dirt. There are probably 8437 songs written about loving Texas and close to that many about the problems with Nashville. I do think, in that sense, the genre can be overrated. However, there is going to be clichéd music wherever you go, and the difference is that artists in this scene are making the music they want to make. If they want to make clichéd music and add pop and rock influence in their songs, this is much different than being forced to by Nashville labels. This is a problem with individual artists as opposed to the Red dirt scene itself. Texas radio is giving more innovative artists, like the ones you mentioned, a fair shot, and listeners are given a choice. As for the lack of women, this truly is a problem; however, in the same sentence, I can say Sunny Sweeney scored two straight #1 hits from the “Provoked” album, a feat that Carrie Underwood can’t accomplish despite getting consistent radio airplay and singing straight pop music. I’d also like to add I’ve taken a slightly different view on it after interviewing Jamie Lin Wilson and asking her specifically if she feels the lack of female representation in Texas is a problem. Here is the interview.
    http://countryexclusive.com/exclusive-interview-jamie-lin-wilson/

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    • I remember reading your interview with Jamie Lin Wilson and it’s quite excellent! I specifically remember the part about radio too, so thank you for sharing it here for everyone else as it definitely adds to the discussion. I can’t say Jamie is wrong, but I wouldn’t say it’s representative of how all women artists feel about the situation. One of the many things that did prompt this article was a discussion I had with a manager currently trying break a female artist onto Texas country radio and frustration was expressed in regards to radio playing women. I listened to her song and it should be something that Texas country radio should gravitate towards, but doesn’t. But as Jamie said women just have a much harder time selling out larger venues than men and it’s just that is what it is. Same with radio. I’m not sure what it would take to get people, specifically men to get them to listen to women artists more. I think a lot of it is image driven and many men fearing their “manliness” or “man card” will be revoked if they admit to liking a female artist. It’s something I’ve witnessed first hand and I think a lot of guys would like to come out and admit their fondness, but fear social backlash. This all ties into an article I plan to eventually put out on image and it’s effects it has on the way we consume music.

      Personally I think you’re comparing apples to oranges when likening success at mainstream radio to Texas radio. It’s two completely different ballgames and while both have their pros in terms of generating success, the degrees are much different. It’s great Sunny Sweeney got two straight #1 hits at Texas radio, but it’s not near the impact of Carrie getting just back to back top five hits at mainstream radio. The audience size difference is huge, which is why it perplexes me that regional radio doesn’t play more women. They can afford it more I would think.

      As far as cliched music goes, no artist of course is innocent. Every artist indulges in cliches. I mean love songs are the biggest cliche and every artist does them. However great artists are able to take cliches and tired themes and make them sound fresh. They can breathe new life into them or bring a certain style to make it connect with people. Or they can incorporate a personal experience, which in turn gives it more emotional punch. When I criticize cliche music it’s because it’s implemented and presented in the most lazy, uncreative way (or offensive way with Hunt and the bros). I can think of a perfect example of the same cliché being universally bashed in one song and universally praised in another. The former being Thomas Rhett’s “T-Shirt” and the latter being Jon Pardi’s “Cowboy Hat.” Both are love songs that revolve around an article of clothing. The only difference between the two is presentation and framing: one leans pop and the other leans towards traditional country. One has Rhett, associated with bad music, and the other Pardi, who is associated with the new traditionalists movement. Again it goes back to image and my point in the article of how we need to look beyond the instrumentation and look at the lyrics. I think one of the effects of bro country that people don’t realize is how our bar was essentially lowered for good music. For so long we got used to the same old lyrics and themes that it brought us to the point we’ll praise anything resembling the music we grew up with and love on country radio. Enter people like Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Mo Pitney. They throw some steel guitar and fiddle into their music and people want to throw them a parade. I applaud them for bringing the sound back, but they have yet to bring back the heartfelt songwriting that should go with it. I love steel guitar and fiddle, but I love gut-punching lyrics more because those are the songs that get remembered for decades and get romanticized by future critics and listeners. In the end I guess it’s all cyclical and someone somewhere is putting out music you want.

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      • All excellent points. I do agree that regional radio can probably afford to play more women and definitely should. Your point about cliches in songs is great too; you’re right that they can be done lazily or in a new, fresh way. Thanks for the kind words about the interview. I agree that how Jamie Lin Wilson feels will not be indicative of all women artists, but she did help me to see some things differently, namely what you said about image and her saying that her songs, and the songs of many women, don’t translate in large venues. As for the bar being lowered by bro country, that’s definitely true. You already know from the past that I think the successes of Morgan and pardi are just as noteworthy in their own right as the success of more quality songs like ‘Kill a Word” and “Humble and Kind,” but the quality of songwriting has definitely suffered because of bro country. Also, I just want to clear up that I am not comparing the success of Sunny Sweeney regionally to the success of carrie Underwood at mainstream radio by any means, I was just trying to decide whether i thought the subgenre was, in and of itself, equally discriminatory toward women. It’s difficult to say because Texas radio seems to play women even less than mainstream radio, but in instances like Sunny Sweeney’s, women had an equal shot at success; not equal with mainstream radio, but equal with the men in that format. I didn’t make it as clear as I probably should have, so I hope that makes more sense.

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  7. First let me say I love Texas country and I think it’s much better than the crap on music row. But, I actually agree with your assessment. When I think about Texas country I think about how much I like it But what I actually like are just the 17 artists you named and that’s basically it. In regards to women they are actually worse than mainstream country which is an almost impossible feat. Anyway great article, something that needed to be said!

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  8. That bad element’s been there for a while, and I say that as someone who’s been following the Texas/Red Dirt scene for more than 15 years. Not defending it by any means, just making the observation. I remember, for example, people bitching at the turn of the century about the likes of Pat Green and Cory Morrow singing all those songs talking about Texas, Shiner Bock, and floating the Guadalupe. More recently, as good as I heard Josh Abbott Band’s last album was, I’m not really sure he’ll fully make up for songs like “Hotty Toddy” and “FFA.” My deal with Texas/Red Dirt was always simply this: there’s bad, sure, but there’s a lot more good. I will freely acknowledge the bad, even as I personally ignore it, and I’ll go so far and say that some of the scene’s most venerated artists are capable of not-so-good stuff. Aaron Watson’s Real Good Time, for example, trafficked pretty heavily in the mainstream country cliches, to the point that I didn’t listen to it that much. The Underdog, while a massive improvement, did the same in spots and had its own subpar moments (see: Rodeo Queen”). But there’s always room for improvement.

    (Funny thing about the “You coast on and hide behind the goodwill of steel guitars and fiddles” line…one of the things that struck me listening to the new William Clark Green live album is that he doesn’t even HAVE a fiddle or steel guitar player, yet I would happily point to him as one of the best newer artists on the scene. But I absolutely do see what you were getting at.)

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  9. I’m gonna say that Megan succinctly raised some of my issues with the piece, although I totally agree with the overall premise. I live in Texas and don’t listen to the Texas/Red Dirt station all that much because much of the music is garbage, just like mainstream country. If I’m listening to music, I’m most likely streaming or listening to CDs. And all the charts can suck it.

    One thing that the Texas/Red Dirt scene has over Nashville is the bands. You’re not getting a Whiskey Myers or a Band of Heathens or a Susto or (to go back) a Cross Canadian Ragweed out of Nashville. Are any of those bands necessarily country? Nope. But they all emerged from the “scene”.

    I will be looking forward to your piece on why guys won’t support female artists. Specifically because I have quite the opposite position personally. I promote way more women than men on my blog. Because, dammit, a powerful, strong, sexy female voice gets me every time. I know more more women who prefer male artists than females. I guess because Luke Bryan looks good in skinny jeans to them? I don’t know. As I type I’m listening to Eliza Neals’ “10,000 Feet Below”. Kick ass blues rock.

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  10. Yeah, I would also agree the scene is too overrated. I mean don’t get me wrong, there is some fantastic stuff within the genre, but I also think there’s a lot of crap that goes unnoticed.

    After all, why does the mainstream get so much flack for artists like Sam Hunt, FGL, Aldean…etc? Because these artists are front and center – you can’t get away from them! Whether it be shopping somewhere and having it come on the speakers, being forced to listen to the radio when you’re with family in the car or even seeing their freakin’ tweets promoted on your timeline, you know who these artists are.

    Texas? Well….not really. I remember once writing once a piece that asked why it would be worth anyone’s time to cover some bad Texas act and beat them around for a couple paragraphs. The artist would think you’re a dick, and nobody who reads it would have any clue who the artist is anyway (probably). It would be wasted effort. Simply put, they don’t have the promotion behind it. Granted, I’d probably revise that today – after all, criticism should be seen as constructive rather than destructive (of course that’s a WHOLE other debate…), but still, to be blunt – these artists aren’t having the same impact on the genre the way the worst of the mainstream does. Therefore, we really only hear about the good Texas acts (which makes sense). Important though – there’s more than meets the eye. I remember once forcing myself to listen to the entire top 30 of the chart to see if I could find some buried treasure so to say. I did, but I also found some stuff I wouldn’t want to hear again.

    To an extent I’d also call attention to Americana as well. Obviously an entirely different animal, but still.

    I agree with the acts you mentioned. I wouldn’t necessarily call any of them “revolutionary” outside of “Goodbye Normal Street” by Turnpike, but they’re all (in my view) quality artists that are either knocking you on your ass with the truth (Jinks, Sweeney, Eady, Patton) or letting you cut loose and have fun (Calvary, Watson, Johnson). It’s a nice balance.

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